POSTED ON AUGUST 3, 2011:
The heart of Philly on the streets of T-Town
Oklahomans love their sandwiches. If food can be placed between slices of bread, it seems we'll give it a try. Meat is preferable, but we'll eat veggies only (well, I won't, but I know people who will) sandwiches. We are a population crazed for burgers and BBQ's tasty offerings of pulled pork or brisket. Even the omnipresent Okie dish of chicken fried steak goes wonderful with a little mayo, lettuce, tomato and yes, bread. But if there's an unappreciated sandwich in Tulsa, it has to be the Philly cheesesteak.
Born in the late 19th century in the city where it was given its namesake, the traditional Philly cheesesteak is comprised of thinly sliced rib-eye steak chopped and cooked on a hot grill. As the meat cooks, grilled onions, peppers and cheese are added to the tender steak. I've never understood why there are not more places to get a good cheesesteak in Tulsa, as it is the possibly the perfect sandwich that involves meat, cheese and bread. Coming from a person who loves BBQ and burgers as much as I do, that's saying something.
I'd had a few decent cheesesteaks in my youth, but it wasn't until 2001 when I finally saw the light of the pure genius of the cheesesteak. Living in New York at the time, my friend Robert and I took an impromptu visit to Philadelphia for the sole purpose of gorging ourselves on multiple sandwiches. We started at Pat's and then made our way down Passyunk Avenue to Geno's. We tried it with provolone and the blessed whiz. We savored the smells and the unique East coast attitude of the locals that made preparedness to order a necessity if you didn't want to suffer the consequences. In a few hours we'd consumed nearly four cheesesteaks each.
Steak Stuffers USA.
The authentic cheesesteak came to Tulsa in 1988 when the Van Wyck family opened up their first Steak Stuffers USA at 39th and Peoria. The patriarch, George Van Wyck, was very familiar with the sandwich since he was from Philadelphia and had previously owned cheesesteak centered restaurants there. Multiple generations of Van Wycks now work at their only Tulsa location at 7846 E. 51st Street and if you want to have a traditional Philly cheesesteak, this is the place to get it.
What makes the cheesesteak so special at Steak Stuffers USA? Well, the meat is a good place to start. Tender and savory, there's something about the combination of the thinly sliced meat and the sizzling griddle that produces a nice flavor and texture. But, my favorite thing about Steak Stuffers USA is they offer that creamy elixir known as cheese whiz as one of the toppings of choice. In fact, unless you specify differently, it is the de facto topping. I've had provolone and other cheeses on my sandwich, but nothing beats the golden lava of whiz poured onto meat and grilled onions.
"Cheese whiz is by far the most popular cheese choice for our customers," Garth Van Wyck told me one afternoon after a busy lunch rush at the restaurant. "At least 70 percent of our customers get the whiz. We go through it by the cases and we've been told that Steak Stuffers is the number one buyer of cheese whiz in the entire Midwest. Cheese whiz is king on the East coast and to be true to the traditional steak sandwich, we've got to put whiz on it."
Cheese whiz never made its way onto the sandwich until the 1950s due to the fact it didn't hit the grocery store until 1953. Steak Stuffers USA offers up a mix of other cheeses with Provolone, Pepper jack and White American on the menu. Forget that, I'll take the whiz to tap into some kind of deep-seeded feeling of nostalgia I have for a childhood favorite. Plus, the sandwich just tastes better with the whiz.
Steak Stuffers USA might be the place to go for a traditional Philly style sandwich, but it isn't the only place to get a cheesesteak in Tulsa. Moonsky's Cheesesteaks and Donuts at 2216 E. Pine Street serves up a cheesesteak hybrid that involves warm grilled bread and even a topping that will cause people from Philadelphia shock -- mayo! Yes, mayonnaise comes standard on the various cheesesteaks that Moonsky's serves during lunch.
Moonsky's doubles as a donut shop during the morning hours, but James Yoo, who has owned Moonsky's since 2007, says people stop in before lunch to get a sandwich.
"I've had people come as early as 9am ready for a cheesesteak. They don't want donuts for breakfast; they'd rather have a cheesesteak. So, we make it for them."
Moonsky's Cheesesteaks and Daylight Donuts.
The nice thing about being a place for donuts AND cheesesteaks -- if you are in the mood for dessert, there's always a maple bar or apple fritter behind the counter to top lunch off with something sweet. I'm not saying it's healthy, but it tastes really good and isn't that why we all love to eat food?
Moonsky's has the usual beef cheesesteak or you can branch out for something even more unique -- a Cajun inspired chicken and shrimp concoction, which is the most popular seller according to Yoo. Longtime customer Chuck gets the Cajun chicken and shrimp, plus tosses in some jalapeno to give it an even spicier kick.
"The crunchy bread, spices and shrimp go perfect together," Chuck said. "An added bonus if you have it, you are kind of done eating for the rest of the day."
The mayo is a unique twist at Moonsky's, but it is the combination of the crispy bread and the sandwiches' interior that makes it stand out. Greg, my frequent lunch partner at Moonsky's, has a test he likes to perform on the bread to make sure it has the required firmness.
"It's sort of like thumping a watermelon," Greg told me as he performed his test with my pen. "I use my finger or a pen to make sure the bread has that crusty outer shell."
So, what happens if the bread doesn't have the proper firmness?
"I still eat it, but I'm overcome by sadness for a little while," Greg said.
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